Taking the fight to Pakistan from Afghanistan

July 17, 2009

Michael Cohen and Parag Khanna have become the latest to argue, in an article in Foreign Policy, that the real focus of President Barack Obama’s battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda should be Pakistan rather than Afghanistan.

“Preventing a return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan is important, but a long, state-building mission in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries is the costliest and least effective way to accomplish that goal,” they write.

“The even better course of action is to shift the weight of U.S. political and military efforts to Pakistan. There, the United States should continue its policy of waging drone attacks against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. With better intelligence from the Pakistani side — as demonstrated recently — the U.S. Army can improve the accuracy of its strikes. And though drone strikes are controversial, targeting al Qaeda’s leadership is the best military strategy — and the best way to protect Americans, Afghans, and Pakistanis from terrorism. And that fight is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

“What’s more, though nation-building in Afghanistan is an unlikely proposition even in the long term, nation-building in Pakistan is essential — and achievable,” they say. And to achieve this, the authors argue for reconstruction efforts in the tribal areas, comparable to those planned for the Swat valley, where the Pakistan Army has just completed a military offensive. 

The argument about Pakistan rather than Afghanistan being the central front is interesting. It has been gaining currency in recent months, particularly in Britain where misgivings about the Afghan campaign tend to run higher than in the United States. Why, runs the refrain, are soldiers being sent to die in Afghanistan, when al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership are believed to be in Pakistan?

Where the article falls down is in the details.

Joshua Foust at Registan.net has already picked up on some of them. “It’s not a bad thing to argue the necessity of a focus on Pakistan. It’s just… that won’t do us much good if we also ignore Afghanistan, which is kind of what they’re arguing,” he writes.

The authors make an assumption that the Pakistan Army, which is preparing an offensive in South Waziristan, plans the same kind of “clear, hold and build” operation there as it carried out in Swat. Yet while this was appropriate for Swat, a so-called “settled area” not that far from Islamabad, there is no evidence that it would do the same in the tribal areas. These have never been governed by central authority, right back to the days when the rulers of the British Raj tried, and failed, to pacify them.

Rather what many are expecting in South Waziristan is a traditional punitive expedition against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud – quite different from the operation in Swat where the army aimed to restore government and public services after a brief period under Taliban rule. So talking about reconstruction efforts in tribal areas like South Waziristan is at the very least, premature.

Nor do the authors deal with a widespread belief, backed by the U.S. administration, that the Afghan Taliban are based not in the tribal areas of Pakistan but in and around Quetta, the capital of its Baluchistan province. Sending U.S. drones into ”mainland Pakistan” would be quite different from dropping missiles on the tribal areas — and even these cause resentment in Pakistan, which sees them as both a breach of its sovereignty and a 21st century sledgehammer in which civilians as well as militant leaders die.

Nor do they say how the United States should deal with militant groups like the Laskhar-e-Taiba, traditionally focused on India, based in Punjab in the heart of Pakistan, and increasingly seen as a potential threat to the west.

In post 9/11 literature, it has become almost axiomatic that failed or dysfunctional states like Afghanistan are less dangerous than functioning states, since it is easier for the United States to bomb or fight its way in without a strong central government to stop it. Pakistan is a functioning state with a powerful, professional army and nuclear weapons. So even if Washington were to decide its main focus should be on Pakistan rather than Afghanistan, what exactly should it do?

The authors raise the question, but do not come up with the answers. Should we not perhaps also assume that the U.S. administration asked the same question?

(Reuters photos: Afghan villager; the widow and mother of a British officer killed in Afghanistan; U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan)

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